NEA Arts Magazine

Making Art Outside the Box


 The artist at work in her studio

Sculptor Sheri Simons working on a piece inspired by the o-mikoshi she encountered on her residency through the U.S./Japan Creative Artists’ Program. Photo courtesy of Sheri Simons

Sculptor Sheri Simons was a U.S./Japan Creative Artists’ Program fellow for six months in 2006. Simons heard about the fellowship during graduate school, when she was an assistant to an artist who had received a U.S./ Japan fellowship. She explained that she was interested in the fellowship because “as an artist I know that my work grows when I’m thrown into really foreign situations . . . and I knew that art would kind of be my life jacket in that.” Simons had originally intended to research o-mikoshi, or portable shrines used in community festivals, but her immersion in Japanese culture changed her mind. “It was slowly dawning on me that although I’d gone to Japan to research the construction and usage of these portable shrines, I was becoming more interested in them as mnemonic markers of experience and the transmission of a communal sense of space. . . . [I also realized] that in addition to religious or agricultural observance, ‘festival’ is actually another form of community experience.” Simons added that her fellowship experience also broadened her skill as a researcher. “I had a relatively short but productive journey throughout Japan learning what it really means to research. I took trains for thousands of miles, walked and biked over four islands, stayed in at least 25 cities, sat at the tables of many wonderful families, participated in o-mikoshi hoisting, and looked into the faces of at least a million strangers.”

Outdoor sculture seen through large windows

Roy Staab, who participated in the U.S./Japan Creative Artists’ Program in 1995, contributed his outdoor sculpture NOGIKU to a special installation by former Creative Artists participants commemorating the re-opening of the International House of Japan in Tokyo in 2007. Photo courtesy of International House of Japan


For Simons, the single most important thing she received from her fellowship was a sense of perspective. “It’s not just learning about Japan but learning about your own situation where you will eventually go back and live. Here’s how they treat nature. Here’s how they treat elders. Here’s what they think about materialism. If I didn’t have that I’d always be just working off of the same deck of cards.”